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By LGCnet political correspondent Robert Hedley ...
By LGCnet political correspondent Robert Hedley

A Conservative move to require voters to be given details of the functions and costs of elected regional assemblies before any order was made for a referendum was defeated in the lords.

Lord Rooker said the amendment, put forward during the continuing report stage of the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill, was merely a delaying tactic.

The new clause would have required that voters be circulated with details of the powers, responsibilities and constitutional arrangements of elected assemblies; the costs incurred by the Boundary Committee and the forecasted costs of any subsequent local government reorganisation; the administrative and initial starting costs for the establishment of regional assemblies; and the predicted annual costs for the running of regional assemblies.

Baroness Blatch, Conservative deputy leader in the lords, said information about costs was so important that the Labour Party included in its 1997 manifesto a commitment that the exercise should be 'cost-neutral'. If the scheme was not cost-neutral, the only money that could be provided for it was money that should be spent on public services.

Studies had been made of previous reorganisations. Baroness Blatch added: 'The work of the Local Government Commission, as analysed by Professor Michael Chisholm, suggests, for example, that the costs of local government reorganisation would be well over £2bn. That figure is widely regarded as an under-estimation of the true cost'.

The government might argue that although there would be initial costs, there would be savings in the long run, but it was difficult to see how it reached that conclusion. Reorganisations tend not to cut costs.

The 1970s reform of local government led to an almost five per cent increase in staffing and to the spiralling costs that led to a financial crisis, declared Baroness Blatch.

She continued: 'Where will the money come from to pay for the transitional costs? In the previous roun d of local government reorganisation, according to Chisholm, upwards of 30% of the costs of reorganisation were met from local authority reserves and revenue accounts. Is that to be the case again?

'The answer is clear: local people will, in the end, be asked to pay. They will pay through their council tax, and they will pay through a reduction in the quality of service delivery. The government will no doubt have their own figures. I would be glad to hear them and would welcome a chance to examine the cost models on which they are based'.

Lord Rooker said the amendment was to delay any referendum. The government intended to publish a summary of its proposals for elected assemblies prior to any referendums, and it would 'do its damnedest' to publish a draft Bill before the first referendums.

He told former Conservative home secretary Lord Waddington that it would be up to individual local authorities to decide how much they wanted to spend on putting evidence to the Boundary Committee review of local government in the regions.

Lord Rooker added: 'Obviously, there is expenditure there. It will be up to them also whether they are for or against an elected assembly. There is no policy on this: it is up to local authorities.

'The consequence is that local authorities will make their own decisions on spend and will have to stand by the result of the referendum, whatever that is. Whether they are for or against the referendum, they will put their views to the Boundary Committee in respect of local government changes. We do not intend to underwrite any potentially excessive expenditre by local authorities'.

Later, Lord Rooker said that all reasonable information would be made available to allow voters make an informed, adding: 'It will be based on the powers and functions of the assembly, its size, consequences of local government reorganisation and so forth. Perhaps not all the necessary consequences or costs will be included, but certainly it will include what will happen to the local government in their area'.

The amendment was defeated by 164 votes to 114.

Hansard 8 Apr 2003: Column 139 - 195

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